In major shift, state expands work opportunities for young people with disabilities
Minnesota's recent transformation to the way it approaches job services for thousands has been dramatic.
By Chris Serres Star Tribune
Liz McGrory says she buried her face in her hands and wept on the day last summer when a state job counselor asked her a seemingly innocuous question: "If your son could have his chance at a dream job, what would that be?"
Charlie is 22 and has Down syndrome; no one had ever asked her about his dreams for the future. Not the teachers and counselors at Winona Senior High School, where he graduated last year. And not the staff at the day activity center for adults with disabilities that he attends each morning.
"I burst out crying because, for the first time in Charlie's life, people seemed to genuinely care," his mother said.
Her experience reflects a recent and dramatic transformation in the way Minnesota approaches job services for thousands of young people with disabilities. In the past, Charlie McGrory would have been steered toward a sheltered workshop or a job crew composed of other individuals with disabilities, known as "enclaves." Such positions often pay just pennies an hour, involve mundane tasks such as cleaning toilets or shredding paper, and offer limited interaction with the broader community.
Now, under new federal regulations, hundreds of these young Minnesotans are getting rigorous evaluations to identify their skills and interests, and then put on a path toward mainstream employment along with other working people.
In Minnesota and across the nation, these recent high-school graduates with disabilities are becoming known as "the WIOA generation" or "WIOA babies," a reference to the 2014 federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The law transformed state services for young people with disabilities by requiring that they be evaluated for regular work in the community before being steered to subminimum wage work.
The changes were spearheaded by the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton and top administrators at Minnesota's workforce agency, under pressure from advocates and the courts.
"This is a 180-degree change," said Chris McVey, director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at Minnesota's Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program, which provides counseling, job placement and other services to nearly 18,000 Minnesotans with disabilities. "We are working to raise expectations across the board that young people with disabilities deserve to work in the community."
The change was not universally welcomed, even by parents.
Last spring, in the northern Minnesota town of Eveleth, dozens of angry parents shouted and jeered at state officials as they attempted to explain WIOA and its mandates at a local day activity center. Many feared their children would be cut off from state services after high school, lose their place in a workshop, and be left to fend for themselves in a job market regarded as unfriendly for people with disabilities.
"There was a real fear of the unknown and, well, what if all of this doesn't work?" said Judy McIntire, of Big Lake, Minn., whose 24-year-old son has a cognitive disability. "Will our children fall off a cliff and lose their services?"
Those early anxieties have proved unfounded -- but so, too, did disability advocates' hopes for a speedy end to subminimum wage employment.
In the two years since WIOA took effect, the number of young Minnesotans (under age 25) with disabilities who receive state employment supports to work in the community has swelled from 7,580 to a record high of 8,058. And yet many of those who found mainstream jobs are still stuck with one foot in the segregated world of sheltered workshops and day activity centers, because they can't get full-time work in the community.
Minnesota still has about 12,000 adults with disabilities working in segregated workshops and other settings that pay subminimum wages, sometimes less than $1 an hour. That pattern has made Minnesota one of the most segregated states in the nation in terms of work and disability. Only 9 percent of Minnesotans with disabilities who received state services in 2015 worked in regular jobs in the community -- half the national average and among the lowest in the nation, according to the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Even so, the emphasis on putting these young people on a path to mainstream employment marks a "massive cultural shift" for Minnesota and a handful of other states, said David Hoff, the ICI's director.
"It's a much tougher lift in Minnesota," Hoff said. "People are very entrenched and very invested in the old system of [sheltered] workshops, and many of them have grown up thinking that's all they can expect."
In January, after months of searching, Charlie McGrory landed a job bagging groceries at a Hy-Vee store in Winona, with the help of a job coach. He was so proud he refused to remove his black work sneakers for two days, even while he slept. Months later, he remains energized by the work and carefully marks off the days on his calendar until his next shift. Many of the store's regular customers give him fist-bumps and call, "Hey Charlie!" as they pass through his checkout lane with groceries.
"When Charlie smiles, it's ear to ear, and that just makes everyone else smile," said Shari Brudos, the store's manager.
For now, however, McGrory works limited hours, a few days a week, and continues to divide his time between Hy-Vee and a nearby developmental achievement center. The center provides McGrory, who loves to socialize, with a tight circle of friends and a place to go each day. He spends much of his time in a "sensory room" replete with coloring books, yarn and puzzles.
"My goal for Charlie is the same now as it was when he was one month old, and that's for him to have as many meaningful social relationships as possible," his mother said. "Work is just one more way to achieve that goal."